“They gave me a pen – why didn’t they give me a hammer and nails?”
“When I arrived today and I was greeted by strudel, it could only be a Jewish event;
I felt immediately at home!”
On a bright Sunday morning, a group of strangers arrived at the Edinburgh Jewish Community Centre not knowing what to expect from SCoJeC's invitation to share their personal experience of immigration as part of Scottish Refugee Week. Everyone was welcomed at the door with a plate full of strudel and ushered into the Community Centre to the strains of traditional Jewish music by a live band. Tours were available for those who had never seen a synagogue before, along with the opportunity to ask questions about Judaism and the Edinburgh community. Tea was served, and the stories had already started flowing as the guests took their seats around the lace-covered tables and got to know one another.
One woman told us how her grandfather had run the Jews’ Temporary Shelter in London for fifty years – and now, as she works with charities for the homeless in Edinburgh, she thinks of his legacy. Several of the participants talked about the accidents of love, war, or study that had brought them to Scotland. One woman, none of whose family spoke any English, had been evacuated by the British forces from Kosovo in 1999, and “plonked down in Glasgow”. An African woman had met a Scotsman and followed him to Edinburgh but still wasn’t sure about whether she wanted to be here or not. Another found herself here after someone had told her about a course in Edinburgh. One participant had escaped from the Nazis as a baby, and another’s mother came to Britain on the last train to leave Berlin before the start of the Second World War.
One lady from Leith had passed the synagogue building many times and often wondered what went on inside – so when she saw the event advertised in the paper she decided to come. She told us her own migration story: she had very clear memories of the horrors of being evacuated with her two sisters to a home where they weren’t given enough to eat but hadn’t wanted to worry their mother by telling her about the situation.
And two women had lived in Edinburgh for decades not knowing one another, but when they were paired up at the beginning of the workshop they suddenly realised they had been in the same class at school fifty years before!
After a short introduction game, the three tutors led workshops throughout the day exploring different approaches to storytelling: creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Ellen Galford, J. David Simons, and Tracey S. Rosenberg worked with the participants to draw out old family stories and memories of their own migrant experience. The stories that emerged were fascinating and moving, inspiring conversations that spilled over into a delicious kosher lunch. The environment was welcoming and allowed the participants easily to open up to one another and share their own personal stories. An overwhelming respect for unique perspectives created an enthusiastic atmosphere throughout the day.
Reflecting on the day, one participant told us “It was my first experience writing in English. I am grateful for the kindness and hospitality here; we are just strangers and we have been welcomed here greatly.” “I’ve been busy with all my work,” said another. “I didn’t have a chance for two or three years to listen to my heart and express myself and go back over what I’ve been through.”
"Isn't it that people make the event happen?" said a third participant who e-mailed to thank us for having held the workshop. "And on Sunday I was lucky to meet people coming from different countries with various backgrounds, experiences and reasons. Some of them came to the workshop to share their migration stories, there were some who wanted to overstep their anxieties in writing, there were also people who wanted to figure out how to build characters, stories and discover other peculiar things about writing. It is quite unbelievable but it seems that all these needs were satisfied!"
Many thanks to the Scottish Refugee Council for supporting this event, and to participants Sara Frizzell and Christina Neuwirth for contributing to this report.